Eminence vs. Evidence In Fundraising–Part 1: Emerging from the Dark Ages
Slowly, ever so slowly, fundraising is emerging from its Dark Ages of reliance on myth, tribal wisdom, and so-called ‘best practices’.
For generations, fundraising ‘know how’ has been driven by anecdotes and passed-along rules of thumb largely free of any empirical or scientific validation.
Examples of our trade’s reliance on received wisdom abound. “Mail more, make more.” … “A 2 for 1 match works far better than a 1 for 1 match.” … “You need 33% of your goal in hand before you publicly announce a capital campaign.” And on and on.
At one time or another all of us have accepted and executed programs based on this conventional wisdom — especially if it’s being delivered by an eminent and respected fundraising veteran with lots of hands-on experience. Eminence trumping evidence.
Like the history of medicine, which is filled with the wrong (and deadly) convictions of eminent physicians, the history of fundraising has followed the same path. And so we all should be alert to ‘often-wrong-never-in-doubt’ sure-fire advice of ‘experts’ based mainly on hearsay … if not an over-active imagination.
Fortunately, it’s becoming less and less acceptable make and defend decisions on an ‘I think’ or ‘Mr. Expert said’ basis with no empirical backup. The increase in the application of behavioral science research to fundraising, the easy and inexpensive availability of predictive analytics, and the growth in numbers of fundraisers who actually understand numbers represent significant advances out of the swamp of guesswork and myth.
Of course our trade won’t transform from its current eminence-based state to one more evidence-based overnight. In fact, the path to empiricism and scientific proof will be long and rocky. And plenty of disagreement, tension, name-calling, or worse will mark the journey.
Beyond the usual battles involving egos there are practical/financial reasons why the wisdom of the eminent will prevail until that bubble collapses under rigorous testing. And that will take a long, long time. Folk wisdom often has a way of overcoming science; particularly where fundraising is concerned.
Take direct mail fundraising as an example. It is becoming increasingly clear that with the use of predictive analytics, attention to donor preferences, and observing the experiences of other nonprofits that the maxim ‘ask more, raise more’ is far more myth than fact. But regardless of mounting evidence that organizations can make more by asking less, it’s unlikely that many consultants whose fees are based on volume will rush to embrace these findings. Mailing high volumes of direct mail is lucrative — for the direct mail agencies.
My point is not to single out volume mailers and direct mail agencies but to raise a general concern that those who persist in ignoring the findings of the growing body of behavioral science, who avoid the use of predictive analytics and, most importantly, whistle past the graveyard of the past while the world changes are doing an immense disservice to both donors and the organizations they claim to serve.
In Part 6 of The Agitator’s Barriers to Growth series, I noted that “You’d think a $300+ billion industry like ours would have empirically based standards and practices readily available and accessible to all.”
After all, most sectors — ranging from apple growers to doctors and hospitals, and even zoos — have them. Fundraising doesn’t.
Of course there are those who excuse or justify the status quo. “Yes, but fundraising is an art, not a science.” Such utter nonsense.
Medicine is both an art and a science. And physicians, nurses and hospitals have Standards of Care specifying appropriate treatment based on scientific evidence and the collaborative sharing of information between medical professionals involved in the treatment of a given condition. A patient in California with a respiratory infection is likely to get the same course of antibiotic treatment as the patient in London with the same condition.
Chuck Longfield, Blackbaud’s Chief Scientist, has long preached the need for more research and documentation of best practices in our sector. A process by which the ‘best practices’ for procedures most organizations must perform — collection of monthly pledges, thank yous and acknowledgements, for example — are peer reviewed, documented and then made available to the sector.
At the same time, we need to find better ways to make the reams of quality academic research (sometimes far too dense) in the behavioral and neurosciences more accessible and useful to fundraising practitioners.
Such efforts would represent a monumental and expensive undertaking. But far less expensive than the endless waste that now occurs in our sector, where fundamental operational decisions — and costly mistakes — are based mostly on anecdotes and tribal wisdom.
Way back in 2011, Adrian Salmon, a UK fundraiser, responding to the announcement of The Agitator’s Flat Earth Fundraising series summed up the need quite well:
“Roger and Tom, look forward to seeing the fantastic new things people are doing, BUT I also want to see great examples of tried and true fundraising discipline being applied!
“Who keeps a rigorous record of all their tests nowadays? And knows what to test, and how to act on the results?
“Who really celebrates and inspires their telephone or face to face fundraising teams, whether in-house or agency — two of the most powerful tools any mass-market fundraiser has access to?
“Who’s using new media most effectively to capture those all-important phone numbers where real people can actually be reached, and where you can have a real dialogue with them?
“Who knows their cost per donor for acquisition and retention across all of their channels and demographics?
“Who’s really ‘developing’ their donors?
“So often a lot of what passes as ‘innovation’ seems to me to be a flight from the bits of fundraising that we think are beneath us — ‘Now that I’ve got this great new technique, I can stop bothering my supporters with those awful phone calls’, etc, etc.
“We mustn’t encourage that any further, surely…”
Adrian’s absolutely correct. If our sector is going to grow to meet the challenges of the future, we must find a way to more rigorously examine and identify ‘best practices’ and make this knowledge accessible to all.
To some extent, Adrian’s plea has been answered. Right in his home territory of the UK. But not without some controversy.
In my next post, I’ll expand on Tom and my post on The Commission on the Donor Experience and the healthy reaction and debate it’s spawned involving both eminence and evidence.
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